IndyCar legend Mario Andretti navigates personal losses, loneliness of pandemic

IndyCar Mario Andretti pandemic
Joe Skibinski/IndyCar
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Mario Andretti is loneliest at night, when he’s home alone in his sprawling Pennsylvania mansion, and there’s no one to talk to but Gonzo, his 34-year-old Amazon parrot.

One of the greatest racers of all time is struggling, not unlike so many people around the world during this pandemic that has devastated families and claimed more than 3 million lives.

His sister and his wife died months apart in 2018 and maybe those back-to-back losses, and the hardness toward death that is inherent to racers accustomed to losing fellow competitors, should have prepared Andretti for 2020.

But the blows were just too deep. Just too cruel.

His beloved nephew John Andretti lost his three-year fight with colon cancer in early 2020, a death that shook the family. It came about six weeks before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, and Andretti suddenly had nowhere to go.

There is no bigger star at a racetrack than Mario Andretti, the only driver to win the Formula One championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. And when all the racetracks were closed, his world became very, very small.

“Before COVID, at least he was getting out, doing stuff he liked, and then he lost all his endorsements, and he was just sitting at home and he’s there by himself,” said Michael Andretti, gesturing across the Andretti Autosport hospitality center to his 81-year-old masked father mingling with guests at IndyCar’s season-opening race. “He needs something to do at the racetrack to feel alive.”

The call Andretti never prepared himself for came Dec. 30 when his twin brother died of complications from COVID-19. Both Aldo Andretti and his wife had contracted the virus; she recovered and went home, but he remained hospitalized, refused to be placed on a ventilator and died.

“Aldo Andretti, my loving twin brother, my partner in crime and my faithful best friend every day of my life was called to heaven last night. Half of me went with him. There is no eloquence. I’m shaken to my core,” Andretti tweeted.

Andretti said he and grandson Marco had traveled together to Indianapolis on Dec. 7 for physicals and visited with Aldo, found him “jovial, same as ever,” and 23 days later, he was dead.

In a nearly hourlong interview at Barber Motorsports Park with The Associated Press, Andretti talked about emigrating from Italy to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in 1955 on a Thursday night. They were World War II children who had grown up sharing a bed, whispering in the dark about Ferrari, Nino Farina and Alberto Ascari, wondering if the Andretti boys might someday have their own chance to be famous race car drivers.

Four days after arriving in the U.S. they saw the bright lights of Nazareth Speedway, where a modified race was being held. The brothers were 17, four years away from the legal age to compete, without a car but “driven by a passion and a love, and as a kid you are allowed to have your dreams,” he said.

By 1959, they had one car built for the two of them to share. Aldo won the coin flip and the right to enter the first race. He won.

The Andretti boys raced all year without telling their father. In the season finale, Aldo flipped his car and spent four days in a coma. A decade later, Mario won the only Indy 500 for motorsports’ most famed family; three months later, at a dirt track in Iowa, Aldo was hospitalized following a horrific accident.

Mario boarded Andy Granatelli’s private plane, flew to Iowa and told Aldo that Aldo was never racing again. They’d buy a tire shop, and Aldo would become a businessman and leave the racing to the rest of the Andretti family.

“I told him right there in the hospital, `There is a black cloud over your head and if something is in front of you, you will hit it,’ ” Andretti said. “But he couldn’t just walk away from racing. He needed goals, and he didn’t want a handout. So he had to have something to do.”

It’s no different for Andretti himself, who refuses to come to the racetrack just to hang out. His son Michael runs Andretti Autosport and grandson Marco decided in January he doesn’t want to run full-time IndyCar anymore.

When IndyCar resumed last June, Andretti still had something to do at the track as the driver of the popular “Fastest Seat in Sports” program that pairs him with a celebrity, dignitary or influencer in a two-seater that leads the field to green before each race. The program had been sponsored by Honda but ended in an embarrassing fiasco at last season’s finale when a participant intimated to Andretti that it was his final weekend as driver.

In reality, Honda was ending its sponsorship of the program that also includes prerace rides for VIPs. Michael Andretti and his sales team spent months seeking a company willing to continue the two-seater program, and Ruoff Mortgage debuted at Barber as the new sponsor.

Ruoff Mortgage has been an Andretti Autosport partner in the past, debuting in 2017 on Takuma Sato’s Indianapolis 500 winning car.

“I made a joke that I was the sponsor for my dad,” Michael Andretti said.

It’s not clear if Andretti Autosport moved money from its budget to the two-seater program, but Michael Andretti said his father “won’t come here unless he has a reason to come here, and I know that I really tried hard to find something for that program.”

Mario Andretti at Carb Day for the 2020 Indianapolis 500 (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

Mario Andretti went directly from Barber to St. Petersburg, Florida, site of this weekend’s race. His relationship with Michael never has been closer, he said. His other son, Jeff, lives in Arizona. At home in Pennsylvania, his nearby daughter, Barbie, constantly ensures he’s got enough to eat. Marco lives next door and sees him most often, and in this new world of Zoom, not a day goes by without an interview request.

At night, it’s just him and Gonzo. He said he talks to the bird, and the bird talks back. He arrived in Nazareth 66 years ago, met wife Dee Ann there, loves his home and has no plans to leave.

“You know, I am lonely and after Aldo, I asked myself, where I am supposed to be? What I am supposed to do?” Andretti said. “Am I supposed to put my chin in my socks? Or am I supposed to look at the life that I have left, the kids, the family?

“This is my life. I cannot imagine any other life, being satisfied with any other life that did not include racing. I never had any Plan B. So on I go.”

IndyCar champion Will Power completes ‘Victory Lap’ at ceremony in Indianapolis

Will Power Victory Lap
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

INDIANAPOLIS – Will Power went on his “Victory Lap” last week to celebrate his second career championship as the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series champion.

It began with several media interviews in Monterey, California, the day after he won the championship with a third-place finish in the Sept. 11 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

From there, it was off to Los Angeles for more interviews and personal appearances that included a VIP Tour at the Petersen Automotive Museum, several appearances on SiriusXM and lunch at The Ivy, where the Team Penske IndyCar Series driver was treated to Wagyu Beef.

“It was one of the best steaks I’ve ever had in my life,” Power told

From L.A. back to Power’s North Carolina home, near Team Penske’s home base of Mooresville, there was one stop left on Sept. 17 — the Victory Lap Celebration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, an invitation-only banquet where Power and his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet crew at Team Penske were honored for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series championship.

They didn’t even have to check into a hotel and spend another night on the road. Power and his team left on a Team Penske plane from the Statesville, N.C., airport at 4 p.m. ET Saturday to fly to Indianapolis. On arrival an hour later, a limo bus took the team to IMS.

Power led the 2022 season with five NTT P1 Awards for pole, earning the NTT P1 Award as the best qualifier of the season for the fifth time in his career. Power also made history with his 68th career pole, breaking the all-time mark held by the legendary Mario Andretti.

Power and Scott Dixon also became just two of only five drivers to complete every lap of every race in IndyCar Series history.

“What a year,” Power said as he was awarded his personal Astor Cup trophy (the second in his collection after the 2014 championship. “What a phenomenal year coming off one of my worst seasons personally. We came back with a vengeance.

“I want to thank Roger and Kathy Penske for everything they have done for me over the years. I wouldn’t be standing here and have the numbers I have without what Roger has done for me. I’m given a car every week that is capable of winning the pole, races, championships, and Indianapolis 500s. I’m so grateful for that.

“Also, to Greg Penske, you are there every week now at every event and I know we will be in good hands moving forward with the Penske Family.”

There are many on Power’s team and at home, that helped support Power throughout his career. None is bigger than Power’s wife, Liz, who told Power before the season that he would win the championship and break Andretti’s record.

“I must thank my wife. I’m so lucky to have a wife with that crystal ball that can tell me what is going to happen,” Power said. “I can’t think you enough, babe. I love you so much and you have been a big support to me my whole career. We’ve been together 17 years, and I’ve been in the series 17 years. She has been such a huge support to me. The mother of our child and she is a fantastic mother.

“She can’t tell the future. She just had faith in me.”

Liz Power’s premonition came true and that allowed Power and his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet team to celebrate Penske’s 17th IndyCar championship and 42nd title in the racing team’s history.

“The 12 crew this year, I’ve never had such a great group of guys,” Power said. “Trevor Lacasse (chief mechanic) is such a calm guy, but he does such a meticulous job on the preparation of the car. He is very, very good at keeping the whole crew happy. It feels as if there is no pressure on us. That’s a huge part in getting the most out of people. It was our first year together with you as a crew chief. What a great year to start our relationship.

“Dave Faustino (Power’s longtime engineer), we’ve worked together for 15 years. He’s almost like a wife to me, a partner … apart from sleeping together. We have a very good working relationship. Sorry Dave, I’m an awkward person and you are not.

“The things we have been through in our years together, it’s crazy that we continually improve and get better. We are standing on the podium after winning the championship and we are talking about the car, the race, and the tires. We weren’t talking about the championship.

“We never stop. The other boys were laughing at us, but I’m already thinking about next year.

“Ron Ruzewski (Team Penske IndyCar Managing Director and strategist) on the radio, always calm. He has actually made me a calm person. I rarely get upset on the radio anymore.”

Power also recognized the fans who helped boost attendance at many venues on the schedule this season as NBC Sports enjoyed its largest IndyCar audience yet.

“This series is growing,” Power said. “With open wheel racing now so popular because of Formula One, it’s really our time to push and put money behind it and go now and take IndyCar to another level because we have the best racing product in the world.

“I have to thank my teammates and (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric. I can’t tell you how hard we push each other. We are ultracompetitive and love each other and push each other hard, so thank you.”

Power won the championship by 16 points over hard-charging teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished second in the standings for the third year in a row.

“Overall, I’m filled with a lot of pride for our team and what we were able to do this year,” Newgarden said in his banquet address. “Any year that you step in the championship, you can easily see the challenges it presents everybody.

“It’s a very difficult challenge for the teams and drivers. To be a part of it, make it through it and for us at Team Penske, to topple it, is a very big deal. We’re all competitive.

“The tough thing about being in a championship fight, especially with teammates is we all want to be the best. That’s how it should be. We are competitive people and want to be the best. But it’s a team sport.

“Will, tremendous season, great, great job. I think the world of everybody on our team. It’s a big group. I’m so happy for all of you on the 12-car crew. There is so much we can take into next year.”

Six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was unable to attend the banquet because of the Goodwood Festival in England but sent congratulations to Power via a video message.

“I really want to congratulate Will Power,” Dixon said. “You drove a tremendous season this year. Even with some of the lows that you had, some of the mistakes with qualifying, you bounced back tremendously. I know how tough these championships are and to see you do it in the style that you did it in the last race of the season, massive congratulations.”

Power’s championship formula included one victory, nine podiums and 12 top-five finishes. Teammate Josef Newgarden was second in the championship with five wins but only six podiums.

Cindric saluted Power’s season in accepting the championship team owner award.

“Will, you took it to another level this year,” Cindric said. “You are the complete package. You completed every lap, had nine podiums, finished out of the top 10 just four times, broke Mario Andretti’s record, and you did it all without cussing at the officials on national TV.

“One complaint I do has is while most of us think you might be from another planet, you never told us your wife was a fortune teller.”

Cindric also honored the seasons of Penske drivers Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin, who won three times in his second full season (“You are one of only two full-time IndyCar drivers that has driven for us in the past 23 years that hasn’t won an Indy 500 or an IndyCar championship. Your time is coming.”).

Kyle Moyer was named team manager of the year (his fifth time and Penske’s sixth). Pennzoil presented Lacasse with the chief mechanic of the year for the first time, the sixth time for Team Penske. The No. 12 crew also won the Firestone Pit Performance Award for the most pit stop performance award points in 2022.

Power, Newgarden and McLaughlin delivered nine of Chevrolet’s series-leading 11 victories this season, helping Chevy win the Manufacturer Award for the seventh time since it returned to the series in 2012 and the first time since 2017. Jim Danahy, U.S. vice president, Competition Motorsports Engineering for Chevrolet, accepted the award on behalf of his team.

Christian Lundgaard was honored as the 2022 NTT IndyCar rookie of the year. Lundgaard, from Denmark, scored one podium, two top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the No. 30 Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He edged David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD by 18 points in the standings for first-year series drivers.

Christian Lundgaard (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

“It’s been a tough season and looking at how it panned out, we struggled so much at the beginning of the season and how we were able to turn it around means so much to me and the team,” Lundgaard said. “It’s the one thing that you only get one shot at. I’m happy to have it.

“Being the first Dane at the Indy 500 certainly helps. Competing here for me is quite important and also special. To win this award and to be here in future years means so much to me. I have a chance to compete for wins and championships.

“This team gave me this opportunity at this track one year ago. We came back and got redemption. We got our first podium here. This year was 40 years ago that Bobby Rahal won the same award. It’s pretty special to keep it among the team.”

Sweden’s Linus Lundqvist was honored as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion after a dominant season for HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing. Lundqvist won a series-high five races in the No. 26 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry and clinched the Lights championship with a race to spare, ending with a 92-point advantage over Sting Ray Robb. HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing owners Henry and Daiva Malukas accepted the team championship.

“I’m very proud of that,” Lundqvist said. “It’s cool to see. We are starting to look to the future, and this might not be doing too bad. It’s been great. As most of you can guess with Henry and Daiva Malukas (team owners), it’s been an incredible journey. So much fun that we’ve had. To be on the grid this year was so much of a struggle for us. I didn’t even know I would be doing this until January.

“To be able to pull out the season that we had, I cannot thank this team enough. We will celebrate this for a long time. I’m so happy and proud about that.”

Outgoing IndyCar Director of Medical Affairs Dr. Geoffrey Billows also was honored as he is leaving that role while battling cancer.

“When I think of Dr. Billows, I think of two words,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said. “One is selfless and the other is tough. He’s gone through a lot these last couple of years, and he didn’t want anybody to know. He’s an amazing man, and we are very grateful for what you have done.”

Dr. Geoffrey Billows with IndyCar president Jay Frye (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment)

Billows was presented with a framed checkered flag signed by all drivers in the series as well as other IndyCar officials and dignitaries.

“I was not expecting this at all,” Billows said. “This means so much for me to be part of this family for the past 30 years. I’ve been presented with opportunities I never thought I would ever have. I can’t tell you how much I love all of you guys and care for all of you guys.

“Thank you so much. I want to also thank my wife, Tammy, who has been a pillar of strength as I continue on this journey with cancer for the past two years as well. You will still see me as a consultant because I love this too much to quit altogether.”

When the evening concluded, Team Penske boarded a bus to the airport for the short return flight to Statesville. They were home by midnight.

Power’s Victory Lap was complete.

“The best thing about this is I get to sleep in my own bed tonight,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500